When we talk about social skills, we are referring to the ability to follow spoken and unspoken social rules. There are a number of things that we take for granted. We haven't been taught these social skills, but we've learnt that these are the rules. For example, when you go to a birthday party you can't blow out the birthday girl/boy’s birthday candles nor can you open their presents.
Many children need to be taught social skill rules in the areas such as body language (eye contact, physical proximity), conversation skills and appropriate volume and rate and ways to express themselves that is not aggressive nor passive.
Introducing environments for social skills
The best way to help is to continue practising in functional situations where you can praise as well as remind your child about what they need to do. Face your child when talking to them, when they look at you, give them a thumbs up and say ‘good looking’. For some older children, if they're looking elsewhere when engaging in a conversation or answering a question, give a simple reminder to your child to look at the person they're talking to.
A supportive adult can model the words and the vocabulary needed to initiate with others. Talk to your child about what you're going to say when another adult such as a partner or a grandparent comes into your home. Explain how you're going to say ‘hello’ or provide a greeting when they come over. With an older child, you can talk about how the person will feel when we give them a greeting and encourage your child to listen back to the response. You can then comment on what was said and how it was successful as you gave a greeting and a greeting was reciprocated.
Another important factor of social skills, is talking about how people are feeling. In order to do, your child needs to recognise their own feelings and body language. By looking at story books and practising in the mirror. You could talk about how our lips go up in a semi-circle if we are happy. Our head, shoulders and mouth go down when we are sad. You can discuss and practise in the mirror, demonstrating different facial expressions to show ‘angry’, ‘scared’ and ‘surprised’.
Once your child can recognise simple emotions, you can start to use a feelings chart or talking about why the character is feeling a particular emotion. When baby bear starts to cry because goldilocks has broken his chair, you can ask your child how baby bear is feeling. When Goldilocks wakes up and her eyes are big, and her mouth is wide you can encourage your child to talk about how Goldilocks might be feeling.
How turn taking can help with social skills
Part of social skills is to teach children turn taking skills and how to manage winning or losing a game. For a child that struggles with turn taking, you want to find short activities where the child does not have to wait long before they get their turn. For example, games like “pop-up pirate” or just putting a coin in a cup are quick activities that you could demonstrate to your child, inviting them to have a turn.
To help with turn taking, you can move the activity away from them when it is not their turn. You can also use pointing to indicate whose turn it is. Once your child is able to wait for one other person to take a turn, you can introduce another person to join in the same activity. You can then extend the participants in the game if your child is tolerating and demonstrating understanding of waiting their turn. When playing games such as “pop-up pirate” or Jenga where there is a clear winner, model to your child that is okay to lose a game. Demonstrate it is not a big problem if you lose a game and maybe next time you might win the game. Teaching phrases that the child can say such as ‘well done’ and ‘maybe next time’ and talking about our feelings when winning and losing, will help them understand that we can't always win and sometimes we lose.
Encouraging your child to develop their social skills, as mentioned, play can also be a good opportunity for your to develop your child's turn taking skills.
4 tips when developing social skills:
Stay on topic
Use appropriate body language to communicate needs and emotions
Make sure your child is attending to you
Use both verbal and non verbal communication
An example of how to make this actionable, is to take their favourite object/(s) or game and allow your child to engage with you. If you are using their favourite toy cars and building blocks for a track, you can sit with them and model appropriate body language while facing them. Make sure you are sitting within eye length of them, so they can initiate eye contact. Once you are facing each other, you can facilitate playing with a toy car and allowing it to go on the building blocks and you can build the tracks together in parallel play. If the child tries to get up and go away from the game, you can allow them some time to come back by reminding them that they will get to choose their favourite car.
Always use wait time/pausing to help your child initiate their turn when they seem to be reluctant. It is usually a better option than telling your child to “take a turn!”. Once you are finished placing the car on the tracks and moving it back and forth with a destination in mind, they can then have a turn with their car and see how far it goes. In this competitive set up, you both can take turns moving the toy car and see who can reach the destination quickest! Remember that your child's body language should include looking at you when confused, facing you to engage and using facial expressions when frustrated or excited. You can show your child with your own body what they can do when you see they are being frustrated based on their body language. You have just worked on attending to task, turn taking, and using body language to communicate appropriately.
For more tips and strategies on encouraging speech through play, you may enjoy this blog.